Buying milk is no longer a question of telling the milkman to leave one bottle or two. Not only is the milkman primarily a thing of the past, your local supermarket may carry 10 or more different types of fresh milk, as well as canned and dried forms. Although most milk is sold fresh for immediate consumption, some forms of dairy products are processed and packaged so they can be kept on the shelf for future use.
Milk solids, consisting of milk’s protein, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins, and sometimes fat (everything but the water), may be added to standardize the content of milk from different sources. These solids add protein to any type of milk, and lend opacity, body, and flavor to low-fat and fat-free milk. Milk is graded according to its quality and intended use. All the fluid milk we buy in the stores is Grade A. Grade B and C milks are processed into cheese and other dairy products.
Whole milk: By federal law, whole milk must contain at least 3.25 percent milkfat and 8.25 percent nonfat solids by weight—which means it derives about 50 percent of its calories from fat.
Reduced-fat milk (2%): This type of milk contains 2 percent milkfat by weight and not less than 8.25 percent nonfat solids. It’s important to keep in mind that while “2% milk” refers to the milkfat percentage by weight, much of milk’s weight is water. Once you subtract the water from this type of milk, you’re left with a product that contains 20 percent fat by weight. In fact, such milk actually derives 35 percent of its calories from fat. Drinking reduced-fat milk is a good way to wean yourself from whole milk at first, but it is still too high in fat to be a permanent choice, unless your diet is otherwise very low in fat and you’re at a healthy weight.
Low-fat milk (1%, light): This designation covers milk that contains from 0.5 to 1.5 percent milkfat. However, these low percentages, and the “low-fat” designation itself, are deceptive. In truth, low-fat milk gets 23 percent of its calories from fat.
Fat-free (skim, nonfat milk): This type of milk has as much fat as possible removed. It may not contain more than 0.5 percent milkfat by weight, and usually contains less than half a gram of fat per cup, deriving just 5 percent of its calories from fat. Fat-free milk has about half the calories of whole milk. Today some dairies are taking some of the natural water out of their fat-free milk, or adding back in some nonfat dry milk, to give the milk a more appealing appearance and a mouth feel that is closer to reduced-fat (2%) milk.
Organic milk: If a milk product is labeled “organic,” it usually implies that it has come from cows fed and raised without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics, and hormones. This may not necessarily be true, however, since federal regulations defining standards for the production, handling, and processing of “organic” products are not always followed. Therefore it’s best to look for organic milk that is certified under a program overseen in your state. Also keep in mind that organic milk may cost twice as much as regular, and it offers no health advantages over regular milk, including hormone-treated milk.
Raw milk: Usually only available in health food stores or at farm stands, raw milk has not been pasteurized. Advocates say it’s better nutritionally because the vitamins and natural enzymes have not been destroyed by heat. But pasteurization causes only a slight reduction in some B vitamins. There are no known health advantages for raw milk—and there are real hazards. While the dairies that are certified to sell raw milk have rigid hygiene standards and their herds are inspected regularly, the milk still carries some potential risk of disease because it isn’t pasteurized. Raw milk can carry bacteria, including E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria, which can cause dangerous infections.
In addition to catering to the need for milk with varying fat contents, dairies supply specialty milk in response to particular health concerns and taste preferences. For instance, the widespread recognition of lactose intolerance in the American population has brought lactose-reduced and lactose-free milk to the dairy case, and the growing awareness of osteoporosis has prompted the development of calcium-fortified milk. Buttermilk, though not as popular a drink as it once was, is now a low-fat product used in cooking and baking.
Acidophilus milk: This type of milk, available generally in low-fat or fat-free, has the same nutritional value as the milk from which it is made. It differs from regular milk in that the bacterium Lactobacillus acidophilus has been added to it. Unlike acidophilus yogurt, acidophilus milk isn’t fermented. Some people believe that acidophilus milk is good for digestive upset, or can help combat lactose intolerance. However, a study undertaken by the Mayo Clinic failed to find that acidophilus milk is useful in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome. Neither did this type of milk forestall the digestive problems caused by an inability to digest lactose. Another benefit attributed to acidophilus milk is that it can help restore beneficial bacteria to the intestines after taking antibiotics as it’s believed that L. acidophilus is normally present in the intestines. This could be true, but even the National Dairy Council, which would like to see the public consume more milk products of every kind, says there is no evidence that acidophilus milk will provide any permanent digestive benefits. Still, acidophilus milk is harmless, and if you like the taste there is no reason not to drink it.
Buttermilk: Originally a by-product of butter making, buttermilk is now made by culturing milk—usually fat-free or low-fat—with a lactic-acid culture. Because of culturing, some buttermilk may have a lower lactose content and therefore may be better tolerated by lactose-intolerant people. Sometimes a small amount of butter is added for a smoother flavor and texture, but generally buttermilk gets just 20 percent of its calories from fat. A small amount of salt may also be added. Buttermilk isn’t usually fortified with vitamins A and D. If a recipe calls for buttermilk and there is none on hand, you can sour sweet milk with vinegar or lemon juice. For a cup of soured milk, place a tablespoonful of the acid ingredient in a measuring cup, then fill to the 1-cup mark with milk. Stir, then let stand for 5 minutes. An alternative is to keep buttermilk powder in your pantry and reconstitute it as directed.
Calcium-enriched milk: You can pack yet more calcium into a glass of milk with this low-fat milk, which is fortified with 500 milligrams of added calcium per cup.
Lactose-free milk: This milk is 100 percent lactose-reduced.
Lactose-reduced milk: This milk has about 70 percent less lactose than regular milk does. The enzyme lactase is added to this milk to help lactose-intolerant people digest it more easily. Its flavor is slightly sweet, but it has virtually the same nutrient values as low-fat milk.
Low-sodium whole milk: Although salt is not added to milk, dairy products are naturally fairly high in sodium. Low-sodium milk has been treated to replace about 95 percent of its natural sodium with potassium. Its sodium content is about 6 milligrams per cup, compared with 120 milligrams per cup in regular whole milk. The treatment almost doubles the milk’s potassium content (from 370 to 617 milligrams per cup).
Milk in other forms
Because they can last on the pantry shelf for months, canned, dried, or aseptically cartoned milks are useful for those times when you suddenly run out of milk and it’s inconvenient to go to the store. However, some of these products have special qualities that make them unique cooking ingredients as well, so they needn’t be used only as temporary replacements for fresh milk. For example:
Dry milk powder: To make nonfat dry milk powder, the water is partially evaporated from fluid milk, then the milk is sprayed in a drying chamber to further dehydrate it. You reconstitute the resulting powder by adding water, usually in a proportion of about 1 cup of water to 3 tablespoons of powdered milk. Instant nonfat dry milk, which consists of large, flake-like particles, dissolves quickly and smoothly. Nonfat dry milk can also be used in recipes—or stirred into liquid milk—to add protein and calcium with minimal calories and no fat. A tablespoon of nonfat dry milk contains 94 milligrams of calcium, 27 calories, and no fat, and has added vitamin A and D.
Evaporated milk: This kitchen-cabinet standby is made by removing about 60 percent of the water in milk. The milk is then homogenized, fortified with vitamin D and sometimes vitamin A, canned, and heat-sterilized. Since the cans may be stored at room temperature, this milk product is convenient to keep on hand for cooking and for emergencies. To use evaporated milk in place of fresh milk, reconstitute it with an equal amount of cold water (or use it undiluted in recipes that so specify). Evaporated milk comes in whole, reduced-fat, and fat-free forms. Nutritionally, fat-free is preferred. It contains less than a gram of fat per cup compared to 18 grams of fat in a cup of whole, and it is a versatile ingredient for low-fat cooking. Undiluted, evaporated milk is as thick as heavy cream and can be substituted for cream in soups and sauces. If it is very well chilled, you can even whip it.
Sweetened condensed milk: This is a canned concentrate of whole milk to which sugar has been added to prevent spoilage. It comes in whole and fat-free forms.
Ultra-high temperature (UHT) or ultrapasteurized milk: This type of dairy product is processed at temperatures higher than those used in regular pasteurization, thereby lengthening shelf life. In fact, UHT milk is packed in cartons like juice boxes, which are presterilized and aseptically sealed so they can be stored at room temperature for about six months.
Half-and-half (cereal cream): A mixture of milk and cream, half-and-half must have a milkfat content at least 10.5 percent and no more than 18 percent by weight.
Light cream (coffee cream, table cream): This cream must have at least 18 percent and no more than 30 percent milkfat by weight.
Whipping cream (light whipping cream): Whipping cream must contain at least 30 percent and no more than 36 percent milkfat by weight.
Heavy cream: This cream has 36 percent or more milkfat by weight. It should not be confused with whipping cream although it can, of course, be whipped. It is occasionally labeled, “heavy whipping cream.”
Low-fat whipped cream: A tablespoonful of whipped cream is not such a dietary disaster—if you can really limit yourself to one spoonful. If you can’t, try whipped evaporated fat-free milk, chilled very thoroughly. For best results, pour the undiluted milk into a shallow pan and place it in the freezer until ice crystals form at the edges. Use a chilled bowl and beaters to whip the milk, and serve it within an hour. To make it further ahead and to stabilize the whipped milk so it does not deflate, add a little unflavored gelatin, using 1 1/2 teaspoons of gelatin per cup of evaporated milk: Warm 1/3 cup of the milk slightly and dissolve the gelatin in it. Chill the mixture, then add it to the remaining 2/3 cup of chilled milk and whip; add a little confectioner’s sugar and vanilla, if desired. You can also make whipped cream from nonfat dry milk that has been reconstituted with ice water.
Most sour creams are made by culturing cream and/or milk with lactic acid bacteria. Sometimes the enzyme rennet or nonfat milk solids are added for more body.
Full-fat sour cream: In order to be labeled full-fat, sour cream must contain at least 18 percent milkfat by weight.
Reduced-fat sour cream: Reduced-fat sour cream must have one- third less fat than full-fat sour cream.
Light sour cream: Made from cultured half-and-half, light sour cream has 40 percent less fat than full-fat sour cream.
Fat-free (nonfat) sour cream: Made from cultured fat-free milk, fat-free sour cream must have less than 1 percent total fat.
Other cultured milks
Crème fraîche: A number of specialty markets also sell a cultured pasteurized cream product called crème fraîche. It has a slightly tangy, nutty flavor and a velvety rich texture.
Yogurt: Cup for cup, yogurt can contain more calcium than milk. It’s made by curdling cow’s milk with purified cultures of special bacteria that give this dairy snack tangy flavor and creamy texture.
Almond milk: This popular nondairy beverage is made by crushing almonds, steeping them in water, then straining and pressing them to extract their liquid. Like rice milk, manufacturers generally add vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin D and calcium, and often has added sweeteners. Almond milk is also high in vitamin E.
Coconut milk: Canned coconut milk is available in regular and light forms, as well as coconut cream. This milk is made by heating coconut meat with water, then steeping, straining, and pressing it to extract the liquid. Regular coconut milk and coconut cream have higher proportions of coconut fat to water, resulting in richer products (and more fat), than light coconut milk. Coconut cream should not be confused with sweetened “cream of coconut,” which is mainly used in drinks and desserts.
Goat’s milk: Goat’s milk contains most of the same nutrients as cow’s milk, though goat’s milk is slightly higher in calcium and is deficient in vitamin B12 and folate. Moreover, goat’s milk is higher in fat, and is rarely sold in low-fat or fat-free versions. Because goat’s milk has a higher percentage of small fat globules—which in theory are more easily broken down by digestive enzymes—some people think it is more digestible than cow’s milk. But homogenization reduces the size of the fat globules in cow’s milk, too. Goat’s milk contains lactose in the same amounts as cow’s milk, so it is not the answer for people with lactose intolerance. Just be sure the goat’s milk you buy is pasteurized. In some states it is legal to sell raw goat’s milk at farmstands, in spite of the real risk of bacterial contamination.
Rice milk: Rice milk is an acceptable alternative for those who don’t want to drink cow’s milk. Rice milk is made from water and brown rice and has few nutrients, but manufacturers add oils, salt, flavorings, and usually vitamins and minerals, such as calcium. Rice milk is sometimes also fortified with the cultures found in yogurt. Thus, depending on the additives in the brand you buy, rice milk may have a similar nutritional profile to cow’s milk, though rice milk usually has less protein—and no cholesterol. Check the label to see if it has vitamin D and calcium comparable to cow’s milk (which has about 300 milligrams of calcium and 100 IU of vitamin D per cup) and keep an eye on its sugar content. Rice milk should not be given to infants, since it lacks essential nutrients. If your infant is allergic to breast milk or formula, get professional advice.
Soymilk: This is the liquid filtered from soybeans that have been soaked, finely ground, cooked, and strained. Because it is free of the milk-sugar lactose, soymilk is often substituted for cow’s milk by people who have food allergies or who are lactose intolerant. Additionally it is often used as a milk replacement for vegans, environmentalists, or those avoiding animal products. Plain, unfortified soymilk is an excellent source of high-quality protein, B vitamins, and iron. However, because soymilk contains a negligible amount of calcium, some brands are fortified with additional calcium and as well as vitamin D. Others are sweetened and/or flavored. Plain, unsweetened soymilk is approximately equivalent in calories to fat-free milk, but has about 10 times the fat content. Soymilk is found in both aseptic (nonrefrigerated) and refrigerated cartons. With the growing desire for lower-fat products, nonfat and “lite” soymilks are also on the market. Unopened, aseptically packaged soymilk can be stored at room temperature for several months. Once opened, the soymilk must be refrigerated. It will stay fresh for about 5 days. Soymilk is also sold as a powder, to be mixed with water. Soymilk powder should be stored in the refrigerator or freezer.